Valdez community engages with on-water oil spill response training

Photo of Valdez residents standing on the deck of the tour boat. They are watching several fishing boats practice pulling oil spill collection boom in the distance.
Valdez residents watch fishing boats practice pulling oil collection boom during the 2023 tour of Alyeska/SERVS’ oil spill response training. Photo by Dave Janka.

The Council held a tour for locals to observe the annual oil spill response training for fishing vessels in Valdez, Alaska, on May 3, 2023. This has been an annual event since 2016, rotating through several communities in the region, though it was postponed during the height of the COVID pandemic. The Valdez community was invited to join the Council from 12:30 to 3 p.m., on a Stan Stephens Cruises vessel to observe the training.

Valdez High School student Izzy Kizer stated about the event, “We need to know how to prevent [oil spills], but when they do happen, it’s very important to know how to clean them up. Some of these things, they work on a way larger scale than we’re aware of and seeing that helps broaden your perspective.”

The local fishermen participating in the training are contracted by the Ship Escort Response Vessel System, also known as SERVS, to respond in the event of an oil spill from a Prince William Sound tanker or the Valdez Marine Terminal. SERVS is Alyeska Pipeline Service Company’s oil spill removal organization and coordinates annual spill response exercises in multiple Southcentral Alaska communities, including Valdez.

This Council event helps keep communities informed on what oil spill prevention and response measures are in place in Prince William Sound and downstream communities, especially those involving their local fishermen. Valdez residents learned about oil spill response technology, tactics and how this program helps Alyeska operate safely in Prince William Sound. Narrators from both the Council and Alyeska were on board to describe the activities so that participants could better understand the training. We would like to thank our partners, Alyeska/SERVS and Stan Stephens Glacier & Wildlife Cruises, for helping to support this event.

This photo shows three people inside the cabin of the tour boat discussing a piece of an oil skimmer. The piece is a round disc coated in a fuzzy material.
Council staff show a fuzzy disc from a skimmer. The fuzz on the disc is designed to catch more oil than water, which makes it more efficient at collecting oil than traditional skimmers.

”It takes a lot of coordination and cooperation from so many different entities in the community and that’s really fun for the students to see,” said Gilson Middle School teacher Ann Norris. This sentiment was echoed by Mo Radotich, one of several representatives from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation on board the tour. “I think it’s good for us all to get together – from regulatory, industry, RCAC, community members that are here. I think it’s important to see us working together and keep developing those relationships,” said Radotich.

Alyeska’s contracted fishing fleet is the backbone of their oil spill response system. It is essential to the system operating as it was designed to do and part of what makes the Prince William Sound system world-class. These contracted vessels and their crews help ensure the most comprehensive response measures are in place for both open water and nearshore resources. A major lesson of the Exxon Valdez spill was that incorporating local mariners into the spill response system helps ensure a quick, efficient and effective response.

This photo shows
A local fishing vessel practices pulling oil spill boom in formation with an oil spill response barge. Several of these barges are staged in Prince William Sound to be ready in case of a spill.

Since the inception of SERVS after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Council has been highly supportive of local fishermen and mariners being trained annually with the best available technology to prepare for oil spills. Valdez mariners have the most intimate knowledge of, and connection to, the waters in and around Valdez. Their involvement would help protect the most sensitive areas, such as hatcheries and spawning streams, from spilled oil.

“It’s such an integral part of our community. We’re so dedicated to the fishing industry, so protecting that resource is paramount,” said Valdez resident Shannon Day. “It’s important for us as adults to know about this, for the children to be exposed to it, so that they have the same love and dedication as they grow up.”

The Council has held previous fishing vessel oil spill response training tours in Seward, Whittier, Cordova and Homer. The Council hopes that through such programs communities will understand the importance of oil spill prevention and having the most robust response strategies in place in the event of a spill.

“You know what, I’ve lived in Valdez for 21 years, and spent a lot of time in the Sound. Today I learned a lot of stuff about oil spill response and different functions of Alyeska,” said Gilson Middle School principal Rod Morrison. “If we don’t learn about it, there’s a danger that it could happen again. The [Exxon Valdez] oil spill was terrible and some of the precautions we have in place now will help prevent that from happening again, but we also have a great system if it does happen again.”

Board elects officers for upcoming year

Photo of five of the six executive committee members who will serve until May 2024.
Left to right: Ben Cutrell, Amanda Bauer, Robert Archibald, Robert Beedle, and Angela Totemoff. Not pictured: Bob Shavelson.

At its annual Board meeting in Valdez, on May 4-5, 2023, the Board elected officers who will serve from May 2023 to May 2024. All current officers were re-elected into the same positions they held for the previous year.

The elected executive committee is comprised of:

  • President: Robert Archibald, representing the City of Homer
  • Vice President: Amanda Bauer, representing the City of Valdez
  • Treasurer: Wayne Donaldson, representing the City of Kodiak
  • Secretary: Bob Shavelson, representing the Oil Spill Region Environmental Coalition
  • Three Members-at-Large:
    • Ben Cutrell, representing Chugach Alaska Corporation
    • Robert Beedle, representing Cordova District Fishermen United
    • Angela Totemoff, representing the Community of Tatitlek

“The Council believes firmly that our greatest successes result from citizens, industry and regulators working together to maintain and improve our safeguards designed to prepare for and prevent future oil spills,” Robert Archibald said. “It is crucial we not forget the reasons that led to the creation of this organization and continue to work together to maintain the record of safe, efficient transportation of crude oil through our region. I am honored to lead our Board for another year as we work toward our shared goal of protecting our communities, economies and environment.”

The Council is grateful to have the support of its many volunteers from all over the Exxon Valdez oil spill region. The new executive committee is an excellent representation of the Council.

PWSRCAC May 2023 Board Officers Press Release (0.5 MB)

From Alyeska: The Prince William Sound Traveling Health Fair sails again

Traveling Health Fair sails again!

After cancelling the 2020 Prince William Sound Traveling Health Fair one week before departure, this long-standing Alyeska community tradition restarted for its first in-person event since 2019. The Ross Chouest, a Ship Escort Response Vessel System, or SERVS, tug usually stationed at Port Etches, carried a crew of enthusiastic health and wellness professionals from Valdez to Tatitlek to Chenega and back from Oct. 3-9, 2022.

For more than 20 years, Alyeska has sponsored the health fair. On a SERVS marine vessel, the group of healthcare providers travels to remote coastal villages in the Sound to provide classroom instruction on health and mental health topics, host wellness events and community meals. It is a joyful and meaningful event.

Alyeska staff from corporate communications and the Alaska Native Program helped plan, coordinate, and carry out this special event, with support from key staff at SERVS, and Edison Chouest Offshore, or ECO. Over the years, providers from statewide healthcare organizations have participated, frequently sponsored by their employer for the week-long voyage. This year, participants included providers from Providence Valdez Medical Center, Chugachmiut, the State of Alaska Division of Public Health, and the University of Alaska/Idaho State University Pharmacy Program.

Providers lead classroom sessions on mental health, nutrition, physical activity, and first aid; kids seemed to especially enjoy a scavenger hunt to find first aid kits and automated external defibrillators, or AEDs, in the school. The schools were the site other events including delicious community meals prepared by ECO, and a booth-style health fair where community members could get their blood pressure, glucose and cholesterol checked and find information about health and wellness resources. For the first time, providers also hosted a paint night for women and men’s BBQs in each community.

Heightened awareness and concerns about COVID in the villages of Tatitlek and Chenega meant careful planning, thoughtful mitigations, and in-the-moment action to protect providers and – most importantly – these isolated and welcoming villages. A detailed COVID Mitigation Plan was developed by participating nurses, with support from Alyeska’s Occupational Health Unit. Among other mitigation strategies, providers were tested before departure and again at the midpoint of the trip and wore masks indoor with community members. Thanks to everyone’s diligence, the event was held without a case of COVID among providers, crew, or community members.

“This year’s Prince William Sound Traveling Health Fair was a monument of persistence and planning,” said Kate Dugan, Valdez Public and Community Relations Manager. “It was so meaningful to once again set sail and visit with friends in Tatitlek and Chenega. I’m grateful for their hospitality and the trained professionals who volunteered their time to bring health and wellness resources into these unique communities.”

-Submitted by Alyeska Corporate Communications

From the executive director: Keeping the Exxon Valdez disaster in the rearview mirror

Donna Schantz 2022
Donna Schantz

In February, the Council was certified by the U.S. Coast Guard as the Alternative Voluntary Citizens Advisory Group for Prince William Sound under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA 90 or the Act). This process is done annually, with every third year including a public comment period. I wish to thank the individuals, entities, industry representatives, elected officials, and others who sent letters to the Coast Guard this year in support of our work. It takes all of us working together to help ensure that strong oil spill prevention and response measures remain in place.

The Council strives to meet OPA 90 mandates as closely as possible. The Act was drafted in the midst of the chaos and urgency that followed the Exxon Valdez oil spill, or EVOS. While some areas of the Act are perhaps not well defined, the intent seems extremely clear: the Council is to represent communities and interests in the entire EVOS-affected region, from Valdez down to Kodiak.

The Act’s mandate for the Council to develop long-term partnerships with government and industry, while also directing us to help shatter the previous complacency of those groups, is an example of one of the less clear sections. This is a challenging mission to achieve. It is difficult to maintain partnerships with those to whom you must also provide advice, and sometimes critical feedback, especially during times of serious reductions in staffing, resources, and budgets for those entities. It is not clear if those who wrote the Act ever meant for the two functions to be compatible. They left that up to us to sort out, which we are still doing 34 years after the spill.

Backsliding and diminishment of regulatory oversight has been a concern of the Council for years. The Council believes the revisions to regulations implemented by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation in February 2023 have reduced protections for our region and the state (see page 8). For example, requirements for drills and exercises used to allow for two per year and now the maximum is only one every five years (with an option of one additional per year). This problem can be distilled down to the department lacking the level of resources and leadership support needed to allow for the maximum number of drills and exercises.

The Government Accountability Office, or GAO, did a review in 1991 that stated federal and state monitoring agencies had not effectively overseen the Valdez Marine Terminal. Bureau of Land Management officials told them at the time that the Joint Pipeline Office was not a regulator, with agencies instead relying on Alyeska to police itself. They concluded that the recent establishment of the Joint Pipeline Office was a positive step, but that its success was hindered unless leadership, firm commitments, and secure funding from all regulatory agencies are in place. That was over 20 years ago.

If there is a major spill tomorrow, we can pretty much write the report as to what happened. Cuts to budgets, staffing, and resources within industry and regulatory agencies; reduced regulatory oversight; loss of institutional knowledge and technical specialists… all of these things increase risk. These are the factors that keep our staff and volunteers awake at night.

Alyeska, as well as the regulatory agencies charged with overseeing them, have dedicated staff working diligently to ensure the safe operation of the Valdez Marine Terminal and associated tankers. However, as budgets get squeezed, and reductions in staffing and resources ensue, the result is inevitable; there are not enough dedicated staff and resources to effectively do their jobs.

So many have worked since EVOS to prevent another disaster. Unfortunately, it often takes an accident to get attention on the problems plaguing prevention and response systems. Whether heeded or not, the Council will continue to provide advice in the spirit of promoting change to maintain and improve upon the prevention and response systems designed to protect our region. We hope that the long-term partnerships that we have worked diligently to establish will help prevent further backsliding, identify and mitigate risks, and facilitate improvements designed to prevent another accident.

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